Two years ago, I wrote a forum article about the lack of funding equity for schools. I focused on the way funding formulas create an environment of discrimination; educational opportunity handed out to students based on zip code and circumstance of birth.
Two years later and little has changed. In fact, without the advocacy of a handful of legislators led by Sen. Howard Walker, R-Traverse City, the inequity in funding would be worse, much worse. The last two state budgets have provided the highest funded districts with large gains by distributing revenue based on percent of salary. Although intended to help cover retirement costs, it has created another strand of inequity; those that pay more in salaries get more.
As chair of the Senate Education Appropriations Subcommittee, Sen. Walker has tried to hold the line. Without him, we would have seen millions more flow to higher-funded districts, leaving TCAPS and other local districts with even fewer resources.
How impactful has this funding issue been? In spite of stable enrollment over the last three years, TCAPS has had to cut significantly from the budget. We have reduced a nearly $6 million deficit to $1.3 million. Over the past decade, we have cut $16 million. The cuts have come from all parts of the system; personnel, materials, supplies and energy. We have found ways to get more efficient, and our employees have helped us beat the odds by increasing co-pays on health insurance and taking pay reductions or freezes.
At times, it seems that Sen. Walker is the single voice of passion and reason in a chorus of apathy. No one seems to want to confront the elephant in the room; how to level the playing field in programming for students without hurting the highest-funded districts. Ignoring the problem is a much safer political stance. Addressing the issue means wading into the history of Proposal A. It means taking a hard look at how disparate the programming for students is across the state. It requires an open mind, willingness to engage in substantive debate, creativity, and a commitment to making life better for all students.
The equity issue needs more champions. It needs more legislators like Sen. Walker and more Chambers of Commerce like ours; advocates willing to force the conversation. Champions that will hold their ground, determined to force movement in the right direction. Schools know that this is a huge issue. We do not expect the problem could be, or should be, resolved in one legislative session.
It will take a different mindset and a willingness to risk political capital. It will take strategic thinking and persistence to move us to a place where all children are given the same programs; the same opportunity to take advantage of a system set up to be an equalizer for quality of life. It will take the collective will of our communities to expect legislators to pay attention and follow through on being a champion for this cause.
About the author: Stephen Cousins is Superintendent of Traverse City Area Public Schools.
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